Arunas Chesonis’s parents were born in Lithuania and lived for years in refugee camps in Germany. “They didn’t have a home or money for medicine,” he says. “Sometimes, my grandmother gave my Dad an orange peel with a little sugar as a special treat.

“When you hear the family stories, you don’t take anything for granted. I’ve been lucky financially and wanted to play a part in making the planet a better place for my children and grandchildren.”

Recently, the Chesonis Family Foundation gave MIT $10 million to launch the Solar Revolution Project (SRP), an effort that Chesonis believes will likely lead to solving the world energy problem. The gift will support graduate fellowships in solar energy research. It also will support the MITEI Energy Seed Fund Program as well as a study on the future of solar energy. The gift set a 25th reunion record for Chesonis’s class.

The goal of the SRP is for solar energy to replace fossil fuels as the world’s energy source. The project, which will initially fund 20 faculty and 27 students, will explore new materials and systems that could make solar energy available in the near future. Also, it will interact with other MIT solar projects, creating one of the largest interdisciplinary centers at any research university.

“We wanted to get the brightest young people in the world thinking about environmental energy solutions,” Chesonis says. “If we could do that, we’re sure there’s going to be at least one big idea that’s going to change the world.

“We’re hoping that five years from now, we’ll have 100 projects going on at MIT in all areas of renewable energy research. This is just one way to get the engine started.”

Chesonis, who graduated from MIT in 1984 with a degree in civil and environmental engineering, attended night school for seven years to earn an MBA from the University of Rochester in 1991. He began his telecommunications career at Rochester Telephone and later served as president, chief operating officer, and director of ACC. In 1998, he founded PAETEC, where he is now chairman and CEO. He is also author of It Isn’t Just Business, It’s Personal, a book that details his belief that in business it pays to put people first.

In fact, the driving insight for the whole solar project, he says, is investing in people.

“We wanted to do something to allow smart young people to let their minds loose, to pursue innovative ideas that can be used on a planetary scale. Our dream is 20 years from now to have seen a handful of MIT’s brilliant ideas change the world. And if we can say our family had a part in that, that would be phenomenal.”